Hot Docs: How the Mohawk tobacco industry caught fire

Where there’s smoke there’s ire, at least when it comes to critics of the tobacco industry on native reserves, evidenced in Ojibway filmmaker Jeff Dorn’s Smoke Traders.

The TVO-commissioned documentary, which had its world premiere at Hot Docs Thursday, screens again Friday. It will air on TVO this fall.

Dorn, who works at CTV Ottawa, spent three years filming in the Mohawk communities of Akwesasne and Kahnawake, documenting a thriving economy both among cigarette runners and the growing number of native-run cigarette factories and tobacco companies.

The doc starts out with runners making trips across the St. Lawrence River, ferrying duty-free cigarettes from aboriginal land to areas where taxes push up the price of cigarettes.

Dorn then spreads his focus to show the economic benefits tobacco — legal and otherwise — has brought to the region, from fancy cars and swimming pools to well-funded amateur sports clubs. He profiles several people involved in tobacco, from a one-time cigarette runner who now wants to start up a solar panel company, to charismatic cigarette manufacturing entrepreneur Robbie Dickson, CEO of Rainbow Tobacco.

What was once shadowy enterprise, with smugglers bringing duty-free products from the U.S. to Canadian consumers of black market, tax-free smokes has evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry run by native factory owners who produce cigarettes for tax-free sales on Canadian and U.S. reserves.

“We (Mohawks) control 50 per cent of the industry in Quebec and Ontario,” said Dickson proudly. And if they sell cigarettes to non-natives who come to the reserve to buy them without paying taxes, that’s hardly Rainbow Tobacco’s problem.

As one man says in the doc: “Canada calls it illegal. We call it good business.”

These business owners see it as taking back an industry that was once solely in native hands.

“There’s historical and political will behind this industry,” explained Dickson just prior to the film’s world premiere Thursday. “We still say we own the tobacco industry. We introduced the newcomers to tobacco 500 years ago. Tobacco was the biggest commodity in Europe 500 years ago.”

A former cigarette runner himself — the proceeds paid for his university degree — Dickson switched from working as a civil engineer for Kahnawake to buying Rainbow Tobacco in 2004.

Today, tobacco employs 2,000 of the 8,000 residents of Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, said Dickson.

As a federal licensee, Dickson’s company pays all Canadian export taxes on his products. But the government has prevented him from making a westward out-of-province expansion to reserves outside Quebec.

“I’ve been paying federal excise duty, so tell me, what kind of illegal business is paying taxes to the federal government?” said Dickson. “The province has no jurisdiction on our territories. That’s where we’re having a problem.”

Filmmaker Dorn said he wanted to show another side of native life with Smoke Traders.

“I’m not promoting smoking or tobacco,” said Dorn, who kicked the habit himself just over two months ago.

“The thing that amazed me as an aboriginal man is there’s not much left in the community for people to grab onto and this is something the Mohawks have found. It’s a powerful took and it’s an economic engine. You have an industry that is creating jobs and employment.”

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